Few groups did more, for longer, in developing Christian music than the legendary BLACKWOOD BROTHERS QUARTET. Paul Davis talks to Southern gospel legend James Blackwood.
Southern Gospel may be a sound unknown to many British CCM buffs but if there's one group who are likely to strike a flicker of recognition it's the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. In fact the Blackwoods' contribution to the evolution of popular music is truly immense. They were a musical influence on the young Elvis Presley. Like their celebrated peers the Jordanaires, the Imperials and the Stamps, the Blackwood Brothers gained mainstream success with their ability to provide classy backup vocals, recording with country giants such as Hank Snow, Porter Wagoner and Barbara Mandrell. And they became a veritable institution in the development of the Christian music industry, recording dozens of albums and winning every gospel award going.
In 1999 I spent several days interviewing James Blackwood, the only surviving member of the original Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Few would dispute that James thoroughly deserves the unique patriarchal role he fulfils as Mr Gospel Music. He is today semi-retired but retains a keen interest in the cause of gospel music. During his illustrious career, he and his renowned group received 28 consecutive Grammy Award nominations and won nine Grammy Awards. They have also been awarded seven Dove Awards plus other awards. As unchallenged head of the Blackwood dynasty, James has an unprecedented reputation.
Yet his roots were decidedly humble. James recalls, "Mother Blackwood gave me birth in a sharecropper farm near the Choctaw County seat of Ackerman, Mississippi on 4th August 1919. I had rather be raised in a home as poor and humble as ours was, and Christ be there, than to live in the finest mansion of a monarch and God not be there!"
On Christmas Eve 1900, on a farm near Ackerman, Carrie Blackwood, wife of sharecropper William Emmett, gave birth to the first of her three sons, Roy. He was followed by Doyle in 1911 and James in 1919. These brothers, along with the addition of RW Blackwood (Roy's child), were to become the original members of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet.
James' older brother Doyle, who was eight years his senior, bought
himself a mandolin. He gained some proficiency and thus the two
brothers commenced their early singing career! Doyle sang lead and
James sang alto.
The homespun group's first public performance was at Concord Baptist Church that was five miles south of Ackerman, Mississippi. James recalls with a grin, "Once there, earnestly we eagerly practised our sacred songs under the cool shade of a tree. Somebody asked us what our quartet called ourselves so the Choctaw County Jubilee Singers were quickly invented!"
Chilling winds of economic depression started to blow strongly across the USA. In 1934 brother Roy moved back to his hometown. Hopeful of success, the three brothers, along with their nephew RW who was three years younger than James, banded together and decided to 'hit the road'. Proudly calling themselves the Blackwood Quartet, carried along by their enthusiasm, they had their first photograph taken in the front yard of their Aunt Nola Gladney's home in Eupora, Mississippi.
Despite overnight radio success, the boys knew they had to further tone their talents to achieve greater impact. Moving to Jackson, Mississippi they applied for the State Singing Convention. "It was there," James remembers, "we had our first glimpse of a professional gospel quartet performing. The Frank Stamps All-Star Quartet was at its proficient best and we boys were thrilled at actually being able to meet our famous hero-performers!" Appreciation became mutual between the Stamps and the Blackwood quartets.
Meanwhile, storm clouds of war were gathering. The boys' popularity continued to grow as a result of their radio broadcasts. Yet they had only ever travelled over the South. Other parts of the USA were virgin territory. "Then in the summer of 1940 the V 0 Stamps firm called us and said that they wanted us to go to Iowa. Soon we were back on the air in live radio broadcasts in Shenandoah. Doing three programmes a day, many farmers listened in and sent us lots of mail!"
Their programmes continued for a time but soon the full effects of the war began to bite home. RW and James nervously expected that they were most likely to be the first in the group to be drafted. Reluctantly, they went to California to work in defence plants until then. The difficult decision was initially made to break up until after hostilities ceased. Eventually, however, the whole group moved to California. RW and James became certified Army and Navy journeyman -welders and worked in an aircraft factory but still ministered by singing in churches on weekends. RW was the first to be drafted and saw active duty serving in Okinawa as a combat engineer. He left a gap in the Quartet that was filled by Don Smith from Texas. Who was working in a local factory/ James received his draft papers next but was later rejected for military service. Hilton the pianist was next and the group were now one pianist and baritone less. A T Humphries as baritone and his wife Lavera as pianist joined.
Then Roy went back home and was replaced by Troy Chafil. Somehow, via great effort throughout the war, James managed to keep the quartet.
After VJ day, Roy and James, along with their families, moved back to Mississippi while Hilton went back to Texas. But James had been in touch with the manager at KMA radio to go back on the air and on 1st October 1946 James, Roy, Hilton and Don Smith joined forces again to resume broadcasting in Shenandoah. Concerts began again too, firstly in Iowa. The Blackwood Brothers' fame was gradually being re-established. But the group encountered problems too. Doyle had at this time moved to Chattanooga to become chief announcer at radio station WDOD, and became music director at his church. He left due to physical difficulties made more acute by constant travel.
Retaining a team became increasingly difficult. Don Smith and his wife Peggy moved back to California after a year that worryingly left the group without a bass singer. Fortunately, RW was discharged from the services and rejoined the group. Finally, however, the Blackwood Brothers secured the mellow bass services of Bill Lyles, previously of the Swanee River Boys who were based in Atlanta.
James reminisces, "With our ageing parents, the call of love and duty started to impose itself on our priorities. With the Blackwood Brothers Quartet still based in Iowa, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to visit my chronically sick father and my mother in Mississippi. Added to that was the fact that the long winters in Iowa were so extreme that daily travelling was regularly difficult. So finally, the important decision was taken that we move back down South again! I remember that was a warm spring in 1950."
During that summer of 1950 the BBs secured a prime engagement in Memphis. There James met with the influential station director of radio station WMPS who promptly offered them a regular spot. Coincidentally, the group was also running a successful record shop and mail order business that they also moved to Memphis.